Duarte faces rising criticism over economy, civil war, kidnapping

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

El Salvador's President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte faces rapidly growing criticism from the right wing, the military, and the press, United States congressional and Salvadorean sources say. President Duarte is under fire for the nation's deep economic crisis and guerrilla insurgency. His handling of his daughter's kidnapping last month heightened the criticism.

The local press criticized the exchange of 34 rebel prisoners for Duarte's daughter and her companion. The press said the death of the Salvadorean soldiers, who died in the effort to capture the rebel hostages, was in vain. Duarte acted as a father instead of a president, stated the press.

Such criticism especially damages Duarte's image in the eyes of Salvadorean officers. The Army's commitment to Duarte is ``maintained by a thin line of officers in key positions,'' says a US Senate aide with contacts in the region.

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Many officers in the military, particularly midranking ones, strongly support the extreme right-wing party, ARENA, and its former leader, Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, the aide says.

Photographs in Salvador's press of Duarte and his daughter meeting with President Reagan last week in the US sent a message to Salvador's right -- the US backs Duarte.

But disenchantment with Duarte is growing among average Salvadoreans.

When Duarte campaigned for the presidency early last year, he pledged two specific things: to bring economic prosperity to the country and to make a serious attempt to lessen the civil war between the US-backed government and left-wing rebels. Duarte has failed to fulfill those pledges.

More than a year after aborted peace talks between the rebels and government, the civil war seems far from a solution. The economic situation has deteriorated steadily over the past year, in spite of US aid (almost $2 billion since 1980). Salvadoreans have experienced a 25 to 40 percent reduction in purchasing power since 1980. The economy is suffering from two things:

The effects of the war. Guerrilla sabotage has been aimed at economic targets. Investor confidence is shaken by the continued conflict.

Alleged large-scale corruption in the public sector. US and Salvadorean analysts say the private sector is failing to invest in productive enterprises in the country and is sending massive sums of money out of El Salvador.

``Relations between Duarte and the private sector are terrible. From the beginning, most businessmen have seen him as someone imposed on them by the North Americans. Duarte has become a symbol of what they hate, a symbol of the reduction in their old control of the country,'' says Lionel G'omez, an expert on Salvadorean affairs in Washington.

Corruption within the government and Army is large-scale and constantly growing, say Mr. G'omez and US congressional sources.

One key House staff aide said, ``The problem is that many Christian Democrats who were excluded from power until last year, now feel that it is their turn to get a piece of the cake.''

It is widely believed that this corruption, especially in the Army, will, if not stemmed, greatly hurt the war effort, particularly because of the disillusionment and apathy it creates among the soldiers.

Salvadorean political analysts recognize that much of Duarte's problem with the private sector is not his fault. But they blame him for not exercising more control.

``Duarte's mistake is that he is stopping neither government corruption nor the financial wheeling and dealing, and decapitalization of the country by the private sector,'' says G'omez.

The main strategy in Washington's aid program, which seeks to revive the economy by channeling funds to the business sector, is not working because the business sector lacks the desire to invest productively within the country, critics say.

Guerrilla forces have been stalled militarily by the government, informed observers say. But if progress is not made toward building up the economy, the military situation could once again become more favorable to the guerrillas.

Despite the erosion of Duarte's support, analysts do not foresee a military coup, now or in the next few years. But in the long run, the loss of popular support, the corruption, and above all the economic difficulties, could undermine the war effort.

The majority of the country's population does not support the guerrillas. But they want to see an end to the fighting. Duarte has neither been able nor really wanted to take the political risks involved in trying to negotiate seriously with the armed left, these analysts say.

Duarte's defenders emphasize that the military does not support his efforts to continue the talks. Without the military's support, there is little Duarte can do.

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